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September 17th, 2020:

Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.

CD25: Williams 45, Oliver 43

The Congressional polls, they keep coming.

Julie Oliver

Progressive Democratic candidate Julie Oliver is in a close race with her GOP incumbent opponent Rep. Roger Williams, a new internal poll finds.

The poll of 400 likely voters by EMC Research shows Oliver only two percentage points behind Williams, 45 to 43, with a 5-point margin of error.

The same poll shows Williams has higher name ID recognition compared to Oliver (53 to 42 percent) but the incumbent lawmaker suffers from favorable-unfavorable ratings that are almost equal (23-20).

[…]

Monday’s poll is the second survey this cycle showing the competitiveness of Texas’ 25th congressional district, held by Republicans since 2013.

A DCCC in-house poll in July showed the same margin between William and Oliver, 45 to 43.

See here for more on that previous poll, and here for the polling memo. The main difference between these two polls is that Biden led Trump 47-46 in the July poll, and Trump leads Biden 49-45 in this one. The latter seems like a more realistic result – as noted, Trump won this district 55-40 in 2016, and Beto got 47% in 2018. He lost by five to Ted Cruz, so I can buy Trump beating Biden by four here. That would also bode pretty well for Biden’s statewide ambitions, even if it means Julie Oliver will likely lose, albeit by a smaller margin this time. But she’s running a strong race, she’s got the DCCC on her side, and she’ll almost certainly do better with the resources to make her case to the voters than without them.

I should note that Roger Williams’ campaign released a poll of its own last week, which showed the incumbent leading 52-40. That was a rare Republican poll release for this cycle, and it’s a pretty decent result for Rep. Williams. My guess is that this understates Oliver’s level of support – we have no details about this poll, so we really are just guessing – but it’s not completely out of the question. Hugely disappointing if accurate, but not impossible. That poll, which of course came via Patrick Svitek on Twitter, did not include a Biden/Trump matchup, or at least the public information released about that poll did not include such a question. Make of it what you will.

Lawsuit filed over gun sign law

This is interesting.

A church in Clear Lake and a coffeeshop in the Heights are challenging a Texas law that dictates how no-gun signs are displayed.

Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church and Antidote Coffee allege the signs private properties need to display are meant to make it harder for them to keep out guns and to mark them as anti-gun establishments.

They are represented by gun safety group Everytown Law and Houston law firm Jones Day.

Alla Lefkowitz, director of affirmative litigation at Everytown Law, said property owners who don’t want handguns on their premises have to put up at least two different signs: one prohibiting concealed carry and one for openly carried guns.

And if they don’t want rifles to be carried, which is legal in Texas without a gun license, they need a sign for that too, the suit states.

Notices to exclude concealed carry must use the following language in both English and Spanish and with letters at least one inch in height: “Pursuant to Section 30.06, Penal Code (trespass by license holder with a concealed handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (handgun licensing law), may not enter this property with a concealed handgun.”

The size requirement makes it hard to impossible to print the signs at home and takes up space that could be used for other messages to patrons, the plaintiffs allege.

“Most states just have a simple requirement for a picture that is a simple pictogram and that says something along the lines of ‘no firearms’ or ‘no weapons,'” Lefkowitz said. “And there’s no evidence that that’s not understood.”

The plaintiffs want the court to declare the sign requirements unconstitutional and that property owners can decide how they want to indicate that they don’t allow guns and that they “need only follow the notice requirements under the General Trespass Law.”

[…]

Michael Cavanaugh, a criminal justice professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said arguing the case as constitutional rights violations is a tough sell.

“If the court views the hanging of regulatory signs as a first amendment issue, then the coffee shop and church will win,” he said in an email. “However, I think they will see the issue as a simple regulation in which case Texas will win.”

Antidote is in my neighborhood, I may need to drop by and ask them about this. The story quotes one part of the law, for concealed carry, but there’s a separate law (Section 30.07) for open carry, and a separate sign is required to prohibit those as well. There’s no question that the law was designed to make it as hard as possible for entities to post the signs, and it will be interesting to see what the discovery process turns up, assuming this survives a motion to dismiss.

I support the goal here – it should not be this convoluted for a store owner to legally say “no guns in this establishment” – but I have my doubts that a lawsuit can succeed. I agree with Professor Cavanaugh, framing it as a First Amendment issue is probably the best strategy, I just don’t think the federal courts will accept it, not at the Fifth Circuit or at SCOTUS. The downside risk here is that a final ruling might wind up prohibiting a future Democratic Legislature from modifying this law to make it easier for guns to be forbidden by private property owners, decreeing that the gun owners’ rights supersede theirs. Of course, if such a future Democratic Lege passed a law broadening the ability of store owners and churches and what have you to forbid guns on their premises, I’m sure there would be a lawsuit filed against that, and we could wind up in the same place anyway. At some point, we need better courts, too. Until then, this is what we have. Everytown Law’s page about this suit is here, and Legal Newsline has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 14

The Texas Progressive Alliance salutes everyone who’s doing their best to make back to school happen – remote and in person – as we present this week’s roundup.

(more…)

Big 10 flip flops on football

It’s a powerful force.

The Big Ten announced Tuesday that its Council of Presidents and Chancellors has voted to allow the league to play football in fall 2020. The Big Ten will open its season on the weekend of Oct. 24 with teams playing eight regular-season games over eight weeks along with a Big Ten Championship Game and six additional consolation games.

The Big Ten Championship Game is scheduled for Dec. 19, making the Big Ten eligible or the College Football Playoff as the final CFP Rankings announcement of the season is set or Dec. 20.

The Big Ten will also play league consolation games with teams placing second- through seventh-place in their divisions matching up on Dec. 19. There may be adjustments to those games, however, as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the Big Ten will try to avoid repeat matchups if teams had already played in the regular season.

Tickets will not be sold and fans will not be allowed to attend games this season, though exceptions may be made for families of athletes, coaches and staff.

The conference will now feature daily, rapid COVID-19 testing as a focal point of its return to play plan. Testing for athletes and coaches will begin on Sept. 30. The earliest an athlete could return to game competition is 21 days following a positive diagnosis. Additionally, the Big Ten unveiled new information on its plans for myocarditis screening in the wake of any positive tests. Both of those were major concerns that were among the main reasons for the Big Ten’s original decision to cancel fall football on Aug. 11.

See here for the background, and here for the Big Ten’s statement on testing and other protocols. That just leaves the PAC 12 among the Power 5 conferences not playing football this fall, though many other conferences have opted out. Maybe this will work, and maybe the carping from people who want to know why the schools aren’t providing tests for all of their students won’t be a drag, but it’s fair to say there will be issues.

Despite the delayed start, there remain numerous roadblocks for an actual return to football. Wisconsin football and hockey, for example, recently paused for two weeks after a rash of COVID-19 positives. Meanwhile, games across the country continue to be postponed left and right. Virginia-Virginia Tech, Houston-Memphis, Army-BYU and SMU-TCU are just some of the 13 games that have already been postponed; some games may be canceled if new dates are not easily achieved.

Like I said, maybe this will work. And maybe it will be a huge mess. This Slate piece argues that if you were going to do college football this fall, you’d want to do it the way the Big 10 is proposing to do it, so we’ll see. Good luck and let’s hope nobody’s health is permanently damaged as a result.